Rule No. 8: Stock Your Bar with Orange Liqueur
In the beginning, when still you were apprenticing at entertaining, you showed that your apartment parties were a cut above the standard fridge-packed-with-canned-beer affair by purchasing vodka (to supplement the centerpiece of your occasion, a fridge filled with canned beer). Maybe it was a round-shouldered bottle of Absolut, maybe it was a plastic tank of Popov, but probably the liquor you put out was vodka, a little something for the ladies and non-beer-swilling fellas to mix with juice and soda. Maybe also there was a comfortably priced bottle of whiskey or some other sipping liquor for your guests to slam, like a liquid blunt instrument.
Rule No. 7: Get the Lights Right
Given the dark days we’re supposedly living in where entertaining is concerned, it’s worth throwing a spotlight on one often-overlooked tool in the host’s arsenal: Lighting. I’ve been at parties where bum lighting thwarted fledgling romances, quashed burgeoning dance parties, and otherwise convinced everyone to put away the Pictionary and go home early, making events much less fun than they would otherwise have been.
The most important thing to remember about party lighting is that your guests should never feel a spotlight is being thrown on them. Whether you are hosting a dinner for six, cocktails for 20, or a full-bore red-cup rager, you want your guests to feel that your home is pleasant to look upon, attractive—even glamorous. You also want them to feel this way about each other. The easiest way to create that ambiance is to turn the lights down low—as savvy hostesses have long recognized, this simple trick can obscure a range of sins, from the domestic to the cosmetic. What you can’t see won’t kill the vibe.
Rule No. 6: Good Guests Always Offer to Clean Up
Growing up, my family had a beach house that had a reputation for hosting boisterous meals and a steady, rag-tag stream of houseguests who ranged from the fastidious to the sloppy. After countless dinner parties and scores of overnighters, it eventually became common for my college friends to happily mingle with my parents’ college friends over wine and seafood and pies. Much of what I learned about cooking and entertaining can be traced back to those summers, including this important addition to the realm of guest etiquette that will serve you well: Good guests always offer to clean up—that’s how they get invited back.
Rule No. 5: Invite the Office. Cautiously.
There’s a big difference between socializing with colleagues at a bar or a company holiday party and inviting them into your home. I’ve gotten tipsy with my Slate comrades in local watering holes, sung karaoke with them, and danced with them at the company retreat, but I hesitate to ask them to cross the threshold to my apartment for a party. That’s because breaching the professional/domestic divide is like making a high-risk investment—with the potential for great social reward comes the threat of total career ruin.
The risk side of that calculation is especially potent if you, like me, are fairly early in your career. Say you aspire to mix your regular friends with your work pals—what if the former group’s entertaining behavior has not yet graduated from kegger to cocktail party? Add that to the fact that your budget and domicile may be modest, and the prospect of inviting older colleagues over feels increasingly awkward. More senior professionals, meanwhile, may also hesitate to invite subordinates, wondering if their younger colleagues will meet their entertaining expectations—and if showing off their comfortable quarters and fancy foodstuffs might breed resentment.
Rule No. 4: Compromise on Food Restrictions
Question: How do you find the vegan at the dinner party?
Answer: Oh, don't worry—they’ll let you know.
Get it? Because vegans are crazy demanding and annoying and prone to proselytizing. HA.
I’m kidding, of course; I start with this little joke only as a kind of exorcism, because this post will be no place for food restriction-phobia. If you came here frothing with veggie-hate or seething with allergy denial, get it out of your system (perhaps with a good cleanse) right now. In this safe space, we assert that vegetarians, vegans, gluten-abjurers, religious observers, and all other members of the Community of Food Restricted Peoples (CFRP) are legitimate human beings who presumably like to be entertained as much as anyone else, and we will endeavor here to work out a model of accommodation—and compromise—functional for both guest and host alike.
Rule No. 3: Refrain From Trying To Help Me Cook, Please.
I enjoy cooking. My friends, being fellow twenty-something urban-dwelling bobos, also enjoy cooking. You’d think this common interest would be a good thing, yielding countless shared sessions of culinary creativity. Indeed, I have pleasantly whiled away the hours with intimates by searing Brussels sprouts while sipping kirs, debating whether there’s enough lime in the guacamole while sipping rum and Cokes, and adorning pizza dough with various toppings while sipping Montepulciano. However, all of these gatherings had two things in common: They were prearranged (as in, we decided in advance that we wanted to cook together), and they were small (as in, there were two or three of us, and we weren’t expecting more guests).
But I have far less pleasant memories of other occasions spent in the kitchen with friends—sweaty times, stressful times, times when the alcohol was not sipped but guzzled to ward off a panic attack. I’m talking about the times I’ve hosted dinner parties, and my friends have uttered the dread words: “Oh, I’ll come over early to help you cook!”
Rule No. 2: Don’t Be Early. (But Don’t Be On Time Either!)
During my college years, there was only one entertaining rule in my very party-prone suite: Parties should be publicized as starting at 9 pm, but no one should actually come before 10:30. The logic was both selfish and discriminating—the inner circle could have proper cocktails for a few hours before the rabble arrived, and, in any case, no party guest worth his vending machine-purchased mixers would possibly want to knock on our door until at least 1.5 hours in. Most people naturally grasped this implicit guideline, but a few times, certain clue-lackers would arrive right-on-freaking-time. They would be allowed to stay that night (we weren’t monsters, after all), but future invitations were not forthcoming.
Avoid the fate of those sad souls—come with me as we study the art of timing and dispel the vagaries of the well-executed arrival.
Rule No. 1: Entertain!
On a recent late-summer evening in New York, a group of friends gathered on a verdant 16th floor terrace to enjoy the unseasonably cool breeze. The couple who own the apartment, in addition to being skilled (or at least lucky) gardeners, are noted for having “entertaining”—that ancient human ritual of letting other people into your shelter, usually for food, drink and/or some kind of amusement—down to a science. The more practical of the pair attended to a few basic but essential details; this particular evening, that meant quickly made gin and tonics, a pleasing but unobtrusive playlist of Motown classics, and softly glowing hurricane lamps. Meanwhile, the more artistic partner handled things in the kitchen: freshly blended pesto and salty pasta, a crisp, well-dressed salad, three simple cheeses, and a proper French baguette from the bakery a few blocks down. Being an ardent Francophile, the practical host insisted on this last bit, in addition to offering hot coffee and a little cognac or Grand Marnier to his guests as their genial chatter rose with the moon over a glittering Triborough Bridge. After saying goodnight, the guests felt, as they had many times before, a great deal of affection for their hosts and walked home indulging the suspicion that a cozy, well-considered dinner party was surely the most delightful form of human interaction imaginable.